What's Happening in South-East Turkey & Why Does Europe Tolerate Erdogan? A conversation with Norma Costello.

Published August 10th, 2017 - 02:30 GMT
Diyarbakir, Turkey. There were incidents in Silvan District of Diyarbakir, where security forces launched an operation against the PKK | Editorial credit: ymphotos / Shutterstock.com
Diyarbakir, Turkey. There were incidents in Silvan District of Diyarbakir, where security forces launched an operation against the PKK | Editorial credit: ymphotos / Shutterstock.com

Despite a consistent diet of news and analysis being written about Turkey, it remains difficult for readers and many journalists to understand what is really happening inside the country.

As part of an Al Bawaba series on Turkey, we spoke with Norma Costello about her experience working in the South-East of the country, and her observations during this time. Costello is a freelance journalist working predominately in the Middle East, based out of Ireland.

What follows is a redacted and edited version of the conversation with Costello, which took place over Skype earlier this week.

When were you last inside Turkey?

May: I was brought to a police station on the border crossing. Previous to that, it was until the end of February. So April was the last time I did significant work inside the country.

Why the concentration on the South-East?

Nobody is working in the South-East. Even today there are reports of the same thing that was happening in the 1990s, with the authorities coming down in brute force in the Kurdish enclaves in the South East, with photo’s of torture victims essentially. I looked at this earlier this morning. There is no international coverage.

What are the conditions for journalists like inside Turkey, in the South East in particular?

With foreign correspondents working in the country, many of them are freelancers now. They are afraid to go to the South-East because the minute you start crossing the checkpoints from Gaziantep further East you will be questioned. If you identity yourself as a journalist you will have huge problems.

You can just be lifted straight away and put straight into prison now. Even photographers who used to work down there regularly - one was lifted and put into a prison in Antep.

I’m trying to substantiate everything that I get. I’m after getting photographs and the destruction there. I have been able to corroborate stories when I was there, but when it comes to substantiating claims that people make, we have to be really careful.

But it’s the same story; they’re putting these journalists into cells with ISIS suspects who hate them obviously, and the Turks know this and leave them there for maybe a couple of weeks, just to terrify them. They’re sending a message. Do not go to the Southeast and do not report from there.

It’s almost like going into Syria right now. Actually I think if you went to regime controlled Syria, you’d probably have a better chance than you would in the South-East of Turkey right now.


Is this situation specific to the South-East, or is it also difficult in the rest of Turkey?

Anywhere where there are Kurds you’re going to run into problems. I’m not an activist or pro-Kurdish - they’re not perfect either - but when you see this with your own two eyes, and you witness the destruction and the massive cover-up it’s really obvious as to why they [Turkey] don’t want journalists going in there.

So what is the information Turkey don’t want getting out?

It’s a systematic kind of ethnic conflict; you could also call it displacement tactics as well.

Also Turkey is going to lose a lot of territory too, if you look at the [Kurdish] enclaves - with minerals.

Why aren’t we hearing more about this in the international press?

Two reasons. One, the media are not sending journalists because it’s not sexy enough. This is an insurgency that has been going on since the 1980s so there is a sense that “the Kurds are at it again”. It’s an old story. What about ISIS?

But obviously the big issue here is NATO. Turkish soldiers are in NATO. We are talking about the brutality and violations of the Geneva Convention by a NATO member. Turkey also has the second largest standing army of any NATO power, so they’re huge players.

Geographically they have always been referred to as the “bridge people,” to guard the East and keep the west away from all the craziness.

The July 2016 coup inside Turkey took many by surprise. The level of support for the coup leaders in the West also seemed to be muted. Why was this?

I think they didn’t know how it would develop. Could you have predicted at this time what is happening now? To be fair though, for anyone who had spent any time in the South-East would be fully aware of what was going to happen next.

From a western security perspective, they don’t go to the South-East and don’t know what is happening in that region. So they are judging things by what is happening in central Anatolia and the West.

There are a lot of assumptions made about restoring a stable Turkey. Because no one wants a bridge that is going to collapse, you know - even if that was with Erdogan, that was fine as long as it was stable. So maybe they were thinking just about stability, but is the country stable now?

I think they didn’t predict what was happening on the ground in Turkey because they didn’t go into the parts of the country that have been struggling with dictatorships and brutality since the inception of the Republic.

There’s needs to be on-the-ground reporting in Turkey, but unfortunately that’s not an option now. I think that would clear up so much.

Many inside the Middle East believe that the criticisms of Erdogan by the West are selective and motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment. Have you experienced this argument?

People who agree with Erdogan need to look at the circumstances leading up to his statements. He wants to go into Syria now, and he wants to go to attack the YPG [People's Protction Units] while they are fighting ISIS in Raqqa. This is complicated as well. I think there will be huge ethic shifts in the border with Turkey, which will not be pleasant for the local arabs or Turkmen, and I think those people need to be defended, but doing that right now i probably not a good idea.

Erdogan has won in the South-East. The PKK have run - they’re all in Iraq - he makes provocative statements to draw the us and them comparison. I really hope its not working because he’s deliberately antagonizing Muslims because he wants them to think the big bad European bogeyman is after them when in reality his foreign minister had to travel to Europe to say things completely against European culture and values.

There are decent good religious Muslims living in Germany because they might have said one of two things about Erdogan once, and it might have been a very long time ago, but they can’t go home. He is creating a wave of refugees.

He is an Human Rights abuser, locking up teachers, academics, doctors and nurses for being terrorists. There are even reports that criminals are being released from prisons to make room for all these new people to be put in. Currently a Kurdish women's group is working in tandem with a Turkish women's group to get together the list of men who have been accused of sexual violence against women. They’re trying to get a document together to show that rapists have been released.

How does the refugee deal between Europe and Turkey affect all of this?

The costs of the deal are coming to light. Again, the bridge between Europe and the craziness. They have been throwing money to prop up the bridge, but at the same time it’s collapsing all around them and there’s nothing they can do. Really they are so dependent on Turkey as this buffer zone for refugees that they will make statements, but if that was any other country doing these inflammatory things armies would be pulled out, embassies would be closing and they’d be discussing sanctions right now.

None of this is happening. I’m just a reporter, I see things and write them down, but one things that is important is that across Europe we all share statements supporting Human Rights, and the weaker members of our states. How sincere are those elements of our constitutions when we don’t extend them to other people?

Interview by John Lillywhite. 

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